Film - High-Rise


The BFI London Film Festival 2015 continues and Ren Zelen is there for us. This week Ren got to see High-Rise...

The big movie of this week of the BFI London Film Festival was Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J G Ballard’s dystopian novel about class and capitalism published in 1975, and arriving on the big screen forty years later - namely

High-Rise (2015)
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: J.G. Ballard (novel), Amy Jump (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes.

The setting for High-Rise is a colossal, brutalist concrete skyscraper on the edge of an unnamed city. About halfway up, Dr. Robert Laing, a handsome neurologist (Tom Hiddleston) appreciatively strokes the walls of his newly acquired bachelor pad. His upstairs neighbour Charlotte (Sienna Miller) - a free-living single mother, spies him sunbathing on his balcony and immediately shows a sexual interest. On one of the lower floors is a cluttered family apartment where Wilder (Luke Evans) a lascivious, alpha-male documentary-maker, seething with resentment and rancour, lives with his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their children.

Laing is invited up to the penthouse to play squash by the Architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who lives in splendour and isolation with a roof garden, a private lift and a condescending wife (Keeley Hawes). Laing acquiesces to Royal’s imperiousness as he is anxious to ascend further up the levels. However, as he continues to reside ‘in the middle storeys’ he is also able to descend to the lower levels where he feels more welcome and where a good old dissipated time is to be had by all.

After power cuts and shortages begin to hit the building and the amenities begin to fail, the lower building's residents grow ever more restless and dissatisfied, particularly as the upper echelons begin to commandeer the resources and infringe on the rights and avenues of movement of those at the bottom.

The extravagant parties of the rich escalate into orgies, while theft, violent attacks, ritual killings and open warfare break out between different floors. The increasingly manic Wilder sets himself up as the revolutionary leader for the lower orders (emulating the Che Guevara poster on his wall). Meanwhile, the Architect and his cronies remain holed up in the penthouse plotting power games like oblivious, dissolute, aloof aristocrats during the French Revolution.

Caught in the middle, Laing looks on unmoved. The only time he allows his emotions to get the better of him things take an unfortunate turn, so he reverts to playing the detached observer, looking out for no-one but himself. His passivity as he observes those around him being beaten and killed is nearly psychopathic in its tranquillity, until he rebels against the wishes of the upper echelons who want him to diagnose Wilder as dangerously insane and lobotomise him into submission. Laing talks to Wilder, but declares him to be the sanest man in the building.

Director Ben Wheatley’s long-time cinematographer Laurie Rose observes the action, rather as Laing’s character does. It all looks faithful to a retro-futuristic 1970s, but there are some arresting visual flourishes, including dream-like scenes of Hiddleston dancing in slow motion (something for the girls, no doubt), a dramatic suicide leap from a balcony, a ghoulish close-up of skin being peeled from a human skull and kaleidoscopic effects for key scenes.

Hiddleston embodies stoic, calculating detachment well (knowingly cast, as he himself is middle-class elevated to Eton\Cambridge poshness) and Luke Evans, becoming increasingly grim as he gets into his stride and lets rip with some venomous histrionics. Clint Mansell provides a Moog-enhanced score suggestive of the 70s and of classical music, and Portishead contribute a fabulous, eerie cover of the Abba song ‘S.O.S’.

High-Rise the movie emerges in an era of an unprecedented gap between rich and poor and when overpriced London apartments may be perceived as ammunition in an ongoing class war. Surely now Ballard’s vision should seem to be particularly resonant? However, screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley seem less concerned with the message than with the madness. There isn’t much effort made to clarify the divisions between the social standing inherent in the levels of the building and the class barriers which confine neighbours to associating with those in their same ‘floor group’. The film version of High-Rise doesn’t so much have a plot as an amplification of the tone and atmosphere of order unravelling into chaos and surreal violence.

Ballard spends a good deal of his novel detailing how the tower block’s caste system works and explaining the way the amenities favour the wealthy. Wheatley and Jump have turned the lucid, pithy architecture of Ballard's book into a rather disjointed and sprawling movie which suffers from a lack of foundation and focus. They make some token political points, underlining the irony of the Architect’s ambition to create a social experiment with a speech about the merits of free-market capitalism from the then future Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

In 1995, author J.G. Ballard told Sci-Fi Universe - “I think the future will be boredom interrupted by totally unpredictable periods of volatility…What I predict are these outbreaks of psychopathy…and they may provide a necessary role, a little roughage in the social system,”.

Ballard’s High-Rise was never entirely an architectural allegory for the inequalities of the British class system. Ballard was also intrigued by the aspirations and thinly-veiled psychosis of the professional middle-classes, as represented by cold-fish Laing, and their lurking tendency in times of social crisis, to turn on each other as much as on the upper classes.

The brutalism of the High-Rise building is reflected in the brutality of the inmates, recalling a type of ‘Lord of the Flies’ savagery. But the social breakdown and ensuing mayhem depicted in the movie doesn’t resemble a revolution so much as full-on anarchy brought on by an overweening and perverse weirdness.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2015 All rights reserved. 

Image - BFI.

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